Marie Kondo’s books, along with her KonMari Method of organization and patented folding style, have in a short time become a full-fledged phenomenon. Kondo’s 2014 book, The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up, was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and this month’s release of “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up is already ubiquitous, ranked #1 in Amazon’s Motivational Self Help section. How can a book about rolling socks be so compelling?

As Amazon’s rubric suggests, Kondo’s books are about more than just housekeeping. She urges people to examine each item they own and ask if it sparks joy; if not, discard it. Kondo writes, “By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.” A new lifestyle! Weren’t we just talking about folding shirts into little pucks?

Part of the secret to Spark Joy’s success is that it offers not simply practical tips but a whole new way to live. Japan-based Kondo wants to help us banish our battery of dead batteries, yes, but she also urges her readers to think about their spaces and objects in new, animistic ways (before she was an international maven, she worked at a Shinto shrine). It’s a concept utterly foreign to most Americans who aren’t used to acting as if our socks had souls and needed spa-style rests in between workdays. It’s not just a junk drawer detox, but a life reset, a new way to see your own potential.

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don't Have with People You Don't Like Doing Things You Don't Want to Do by Sarah Knight

Then there is Sarah Knight’s irreverent new parody, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do. (Amazon’s current #1 release in Happiness Self-Help. Parse that one.) Knight pokes fun at the cult of Kondo, but like Kondo, her mission is sincere. The jokey tome offers some sound “NotSorry” advice for people hoping to liberate themselves, for example, from the guilt they feel when they aren’t warming to their Trump-trumpeting relatives.

While they are worlds apart in tone, the books share more than one might think. Beneath their seemingly mundane subject matters roils the Dillardian subtext that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. We are so used to the message that within every individual lies untapped potential and that by changing our habits we may transform and improve our lives. But it may surprise some to learn that this concept of “self help” only dates back a few hundred years and was first thought of as a political issue.

The wonderfully-named Samuel Smiles published his influential book Self-Help in 1859. Smiles trained to become a surgeon, but turned from medicine to literature in search of—wait for it—job security. His hundreds of published articles reveal how he honed his theory—a novelty at the time—that self improvement arose from changing one’s own thinking and behavior rather than from government reform, tradition, or prayer.

Smiles’ concept of self-help combined the 18th century ideal of a beneficent natural order with aspects of the then-popular phrenology. In contrast to the pre-Enlightenment concepts of self-actualization, Smiles suggested a more rational, self-reliant path towards small-e-enlightenment. He suggested that a person needed only to work to improve himself, to carefully cultivate his potential, self-control, and sobriety. This would make it possible, he wrote, to “raise man, on earth, to the very summit of his nature.” In other words, it was up to each individual to live her best life, in a pre-Oprah kind of way. Sounds a lot like Marie Kondo’s decluttering, and Sarah Knight’s depersoning, doesn’t it? Funny to think that at one time, Smiles’ concept seemed as odd as thanking one’s socks for their service.

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Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 161-187
North American Conference on British Studies
Victorian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 155-176
Indiana University Press